The Minister for Agriculture and Food, Mary Coughlan T.D., has launched the €3 billion Rural Environment Protection Scheme to protect the rural landscape, increase biodiversity and improve water quality.
The new Scheme was approved at the EU's Rural Development Committee on 24th July as part of Ireland's Rural Development Programme, after long, detailed and challenging negotiation with the European Commission.
The latest version of the Rural Environment Protection Scheme - REPS 4 - runs until 2013 and encourages farmers to enhance the environment through a range of actions including reduced use of fertilisers and pesticides, contributing to lower greenhouse gas emissions as well as improved water quality. The scheme also assists in maintaining existing hedgerows and planting new ones, growing crops to provide food for wild birds and preserving traditional breeds of animals.
"For generations, farmers and farm families have been the keepers of Ireland's rural landscape and rural environment" - Minister Coughlan said. "Modern farmers are very conscious of their responsibility for this heritage and they want to maintain it and pass it on to future generations. REPS helps them to do is. While the payments are made directly to farmers, the benefits are for society as a whole."
The Scheme is co-funded by the EU and the Irish taxpayer and Minister Coughlan highlighted the record level of funding - some €3 billion - provided for REPS over the seven years, 2007-2013 (more than €400 million on average per year). She said that the Government's commitment was clearly evident in the provision of €1.6 billion in national funding - up by €850 million from the national allocation in 2000-2006.
In line with the social partnership agreement - Towards 2016 - all payment rates - including those for Natura 2000 designated land - are increased by 17%, compared to REPS 3. This means that the average REPS farmer will get €7,220 a year in REPS 4 - while a farmer with 55 hectares will qualify for over €10,000.
Minister Coughlan said - "I am particularly pleased that the European Commission was able to accept my proposals for a mixed grazing measure, which will benefit sheep farmers. I had also been anxious to extend REPS to the more intensive farming sectors - including dairying - and I am very happy that this will now be possible under REPS 4."
REPS was first introduced in 1994 and has gone through a number of revisions, with each one increasing the emphasis on proactive measures, by which farmers have protected and improved the environment. REPS 4 continues this trend.
When REPS 3 - the last version of the Scheme - closed to new entrants in December 2006, there were over 59,000 farmers taking part. Thousands more are expected to join REPS 4 and Minister Coughlan said she was pleased that many farmers, who have been waiting for the opportunity for some time, will now be afforded the chance to do so.